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NFV and Future Think

Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) began with the goal of saving capital equipment costs by transferring network features from expensive proprietary platforms to commodity servers. Over time, network operators have become more interested in other benefits, starting with improved operations efficiency and moving to building new service revenues through agile service creation.


Revenue gains from NFV would be a powerful accelerant to NFV deployment, but there is a risk that a general goal of “service agility” won’t translate into any specific offering or generate any revenue. In fact, there is a risk that we don’t even understand what features of NFV would be valuable in creating future services. The good news is that we can validate some of the valuable NFV contributions by looking at just what the future might hold.


The most challenging shift in all of networking is the shift to mobile broadband. Users or workers who take their devices with them everywhere want to use them for everything, from personal entertainment to productivity empowerment. The revenues from services to exploit these desires could, by some estimates, reach almost one trillion dollars per year. No amount of capex or opex savings could generate that upside.


Mobile users see their devices as partners, almost as personal assistants. Their needs are driven by their behaviors, including their location, their current mission, and their social contacts and interactions. To fulfill a request from a mobile user, an application would have to analyze this total context as well as the request being made and the sum of knowledge available. It’s difficult to see how an application to do this could be constructed and sustained, whether it’s on a user’s device or in the cloud, in anticipation of all possible requests. A better strategy is to build one ad hoc based on need.


NFV has the unique ability to quickly deploy components of network and application functionality, a unique ability to blend the cloud and the network. The context of the user—cell location, GPS, local movement of other users as a traffic metric, etc.—can be analyzed in the context of the destination or goal, the location of others a user might want to meet. That information, and the specific request, can then be used to drive a set of ad hoc analytic tasks, some perhaps doing web searches and others looking at the context of other users, to provide an answer.


It’s not necessary that all these resource-side tasks be deployed ad hoc via NFV, but those that represent highly dynamic knowledge like user context should be. NFV can put functionality close to the requestor, close to the information resources, close to pockets of people/workers related to the request…anywhere that optimizes cost and performance.


The same thing is true with the Internet of Things. IoT isn’t really about making every possible sensor accessible on the Internet—that would never scale and could never be secured. What will happen instead is that analytic tools will digest sensor information and make it available through data queries, and control processes will run ad hoc to deliver knowledge from the IoT data or change processes, traffic, or conditions to meet accepted goals. The range of what we might want to know, what we might want to do, is enormous and we can’t expect monolithic, persistent, applications to provide everything. We’ll spin up analysis and control, request and response, based on what the user wants from the IoT, where the user is, what resources are available, and what policies constrain the user’s latitude for making changes or accessing data.


NFV is about dynamism, and it’s clear that the dual revolutions of mobile broadband and IoT value dynamism very highly. We don’t have to define every use of either of these technologies to justify NFV, we only have to support the information flows and processing optimizations that both already illustrate. The future, future applications and services, can be the primary driver for NFV even in the present.

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